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DES: Testing rules out tropical bacteria in Spofford Lake, but risk remains
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SPOFFORD — Initial tests have determined that the bacteria found earlier this month in Spofford Lake is not the tropical strain that officials initially thought it might be, but the N.H. Department of Environmental Services still advises people and pets to avoid contact with blooms of the bacteria in the water.

The department first issued an advisory on Sept. 10 after lake volunteers alerted officials of a black substance in the water, according to Amanda McQuaid, harmful algal and cyanobacterial bloom program coordinator at DES. At first, officials thought the bacteria might be Lyngbya wollei, a strain of cyanobacteria that is typically found in Florida, but has never been identified in New England, McQuaid said, though it has also been seen in the Great Lakes and Canada.

Based on DES’s recommendation, members of the Spofford Lake Association sent samples of the bacteria to Green Water Laboratories in Florida, McQuaid said in a phone interview Tuesday. The lab determined the bacteria was not Lyngbya wollei, but did identify three other types of cyanobacteria — Stigonema, Scytonema and Tolypothrix — that can produce toxins, McQuaid added.

“It’s not this one type that we were concerned about, which is good,” McQuaid said. “But it’s still a toxic mat of black cyanobacteria that we don’t usually see pop up in New Hampshire lakes.”

The bacteria is currently appearing in the lake as mats, or multilayered sheets, that are rising from the bottom of the lake and washing up along the shoreline, according to an updated DES advisory posted online Tuesday. The testing by Green Water Laboratories found “non-detectable levels” of two toxins in these mats, but McQuaid said there are hundreds of other toxins that could result from these types of cyanobacteria.

“It still could be fairly toxic, just not for certain strains that have already been tested,” she said. “... Even though it’s not exactly what we thought it was initially, it’s still concerning. It’s still a mat of cyanobacteria that could still cause health issues. It’s probably not as toxic as we first thought, but the advisory is the same.”

Cyanobacteria naturally occur in bodies of water worldwide, according to the DES advisory. Blooms of bacteria, like the mats on Spofford Lake, and other types of surface scum, “may form when excess nutrients are available to the water,” according to the department.

DES still cautions people, and especially pets, to avoid contact with the bacteria mats. And while fewer people may be swimming in the lake as the weather cools, McQuaid added that dog owners need to be particularly careful with their pets along the shore of Spofford Lake.

“It’s not likely that anyone would consume this stuff, but dogs especially, could go in the water, get it on their fur, and consume it and become ill from this,” she said. In humans, toxins that result from cyanobacteria can cause health issues ranging from skin irritation, nausea and seizures to long-term liver and central nervous system damage, according to the DES advisory.

The Spofford Lake Association, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and sustaining the lake and surrounding watershed, currently recommends against using the water for drinking or showering, according to a post on the organization’s website. But, the association said, it is OK to use lake water for dish washing or irrigation. McQuaid added that swimming in open water is also fine, but people and pets should avoid the mats on the shoreline.

McQuaid said Tuesday that the black mats in Spofford Lake still require further DNA testing to determine what other types of bacteria may be present and what toxins those bacteria may cause. The department is partnering with Keene State biology professor Loren Launen to conduct this testing, which will take several weeks. In the meantime, the DES advisory against coming into contact with the bacteria mats will remain in effect until the department can confirm that they have subsided.

That will take time, McQuaid added, and the best way to get rid of cyanobacteria blooms is to let them die off naturally.

“I know it’s not ideal, but it’s best to leave it alone and let it do its thing,” she said. “Once it’s on your beach, you can certainly rake it, but we wouldn’t want you to handle it. You don’t want to breathe it in. It’s probably very low risk, but we’re still concerned about what this is.”Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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Child abuse reports plummet as students go remote

When COVID-19 shut down workplaces and schools across New Hampshire in March, the number of reports of child mistreatment received by the state plummeted in the course of a week.

In the first week after Gov. Chris Sununu issued an emergency order to close schools and move to remote learning reports of child abuse decreased by almost 50 percent, according to data from the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).

Educators, including teachers, staff and social workers, are the number one source of reports for child abuse and neglect across the country. With schools continuing to operate on remote learning models, worries remain that cases of child abuse may be going undetected.

“At the beginning, we all thought they would be back to school by May,” said Marty Sink, president of child advocacy organization CASA New Hampshire. “And now, knowing some of the largest districts — Nashua, Manchester and Concord — are still doing virtual learning, there is continued concern that many children are at home and not being seen by teachers and daycare providers.”

Six months after the initial drop in reports, New Hampshire’s numbers have been back on the rise, and doubled from one week to the next as schools began to reopen, but there is one significant change. Most reports in August 2020 came from law enforcement, not educators. The number of reports from school/childcare workers was down 49 percent from August 2019.

“We knew very well that reports of incidents of child abuse and neglect were not down because kids were not being hurt,” said Joy Barrett, executive director of the Granite State Children’s Alliance. “We knew this was because kids were not in safe places where there were no people who could identify and report abuse.”

Barrett said educators play a vital role in recognizing the warning signs that may indicate abuse.

“Kids spend a significant amount of time in school,” Barrett said. “Educators are trained in what to look for. Teachers are often trusted adults for kids. A child may want to tell an adult what’s happening to them.”

In response to the issue, the Granite State Children’s Alliance is altering its programming for the COVID-19 era. The organization’s project managers have gathered materials and resources for educators on recognizing potential signs of abuse or neglect in children during Zoom classes. These resources include recommendations like scanning the student’s physical appearance for bruising or injury, checking the background for signs of substance abuse or family dysfunction and perceiving changes in the student’s mood or communication.

“We took time to develop resources that show teachers that everyday conversations, checking in on a child just like they would in person, would help or develop a suspicion that something is going on over a computer,” said Jana El Sayed, outreach project manager at Granite State Children’s Alliance.

The organization has also expanded its regular “Know and Tell” training program that’s typically aimed at educators, to appeal to the general public. Under New Hampshire law, all adults over 18 are considered mandated reporters, but not everyone knows the signs.

“We knew our best eyes on kids were going to be other adults — neighbors, other family members, people who were coming in contact with kids other than educators,” Barrett said. “We expanded that program and did a lot of promotion.”

Some area schools that started out in a remote model are looking ahead to transitioning to a hybrid model mid-fall, with the hope of being in-person by the new year. Both the Concord School District and the Nashua School District, which started the year remotely, plan to phase to a hybrid model starting Oct. 5. Manchester School District will be transitioning from a remote to a hybrid model beginning the week of Oct. 12.

Sink says that as schools look ahead to reopening in person, CASA-NH is planning for a spike in demand for advocacy services in the near future.

“We are preparing for an increase in the number of cases we could potentially see,” Sink said. “We are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst and hopefully we will be able to address the need if in fact there is an increase.”

Even in a hybrid model, students are typically only in school two days a week, limiting the in-person interactions they have with educators. Barrett recommends that schools doing online learning take advantage of the Granite State Children’s Alliance’s free online Know and Tell training, as well as the COVID-19 resources on recognizing warning signs via virtual learning.

“I often say protecting children is all our responsibility, it’s not the responsibility of one particular agency,” Barrett said.

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ConVal appeals to towns for reopening costs after FEMA shuts out schools

ConVal has spent $3 million in costs directly related to reopening school during the COVID-19 pandemic and is now turning to its nine constituent towns for help after the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that schools can’t use emergency funds from the agency.

“… the education of children is not an immediate action necessary to protect public health, life, and safety,” the agency wrote to state officials earlier this month, in a reversal of its previous stance. The district got the news at 4 p.m. on a Friday, ConVal Business Administrator Lori Schmidt said, at which point the state encouraged districts to seek reimbursement through the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery funds disbursed to their communities.

Currently, ConVal is looking at paying for $2.3 million of the reopening costs through the general fund and trust funds, Schmidt said. CARES Act funds are still an option, she said, and Gov. Chris Sununu may have control over some additional funds that could go to municipalities and districts. “We are in constant communication with the state, letting them know the monies that are available to the school district don’t even come close,” she said.

Schmidt said she’d be writing to the district’s nine constituent towns, “and basically ask, ‘Whatever you could do to help us, we would appreciate it’.”

“That is our recourse right now,” she said.

It’s unlikely any town would still have GOFERR funds since they applied for specific pandemic-related costs and had seven months to spend them, Schmidt said. That’s the case in Hancock, Jonathan Coyne said on Friday, since all the town’s GOFERR funds had to be spent by Sept. 15, besides funds reserved for election-related costs. Hancock had not yet received a request for funds from ConVal, Coyne said.

Peterborough could potentially apply for more GOFERR funds to support the school before the final deadline of Oct. 31, Deputy Town Administrator Nicole MacStay said, but the town was still waiting to find out what the state will cover from the costs already submitted for reimbursement. The Dublin selectboard was waiting to receive ConVal’s request in writing after the district appealed to towns at last Thursday’s Selectmen’s Advisory Committee meeting and would deliberate requests for funds at that point, Town Administrator Kate Fuller said.

It’s too soon to tell whether the reopening costs will affect the tax rate, or if they’ll put the school budget in deficit, or even to say whether towns would receive a return of funds left over from last year that they could apply to the coming year, Schmidt said, although the conservative approach would be not to anticipate a return.

“Historically, we’ve been working on being fiscally responsible and tightening up our budget, trying to build a budget that don’t have these surprise large returns back to the town,” she said.

Towns aren’t supposed to count on returns from the unallocated fund balance, MacStay said, and Peterborough is mostly focusing on how the pandemic is affecting the town, rather than the school, tax rate. However, the unallocated fund balance can determine whether a smaller municipality has chronic cash-flow issues throughout the year, Greenfield Town Administrator Aaron Patt said, and that as of July 13, ConVal anticipated $850,000 in its unallocated fund balance.

“If we’re not going to get $800,000 back, that’s obviously going to have an impact on us,” Coyne said of towns’ upcoming payments to the school.

Some middle- and high-school students who elected for in-person classes are still learning remotely due to ongoing trouble with permits for tents over 400 square feet to be used for outdoor learning, according to a news release from ConVal on Friday. ConVal claims the tent company was responsible for providing all the engineering documentation required for the large tents and is now requesting a refund of $183,690 for the tents rendered unusable due to missing paperwork. The district also “will be withholding additional money initially owed to the vendor pending the resolution of permitting issues.”

The school budget is currently frozen, which means that while emergency purchases are still going through, all routine purchases, such as school supplies, subscriptions and membership fees, are now going before the school board. Usually they would just go through Schmidt and a couple of board members, she said.

“We’re being very careful with the funds and deferring capital improvements and purchases,” she said.

The reopening costs fall into three major categories: One million dollars went to new staffing necessitated by the school’s COVID-19 operating procedures. About $800,000 went to safety-related expenses, and another $800,000 went to contracted services, which includes the district’s $480,000 tent contract, Schmidt said. Expenses include sanitization and personal protective equipment.

In-person classes are scheduled to resume for South Meadow School 7th and 8th graders on Oct. 5, and for all high schoolers on Oct. 13. The high schoolers are scheduled to attend in cohorts that alternate in-person and remote instruction week by week.